EACH WEEK, WE'LL TAKE A LOOK BACK AT A MEMORABLE MOMENT IN ILLINI HISTORY, THANKS TO THE WORDS OF THE NEWS-GAZETTE
This week: Meyers Leonard is headed to the NBA after his sophomore season. It wasn't that long ago that he committed to Illinois.
Date: July 30, 2008
Headline: Leonard goes from small town to big-time
By PAUL KLEE
CHAMPAIGN — How to describe the latest prospect to commit to the Illinois basketball program?
"Pau Gasol," said AAU coach Terrell Ramey, "I always tell people, he plays like Pau Gasol."
And before a breakout performance on the AAU circuit, Meyers Leonard was a relatively foreign name in high-major recruiting circles. A 6-foot-10 rising junior, Leonard caught the attention of at least two recruiting analysts and parlayed the attention into an appearance at several marquee summer events.
From there, college coaches began hovering, and the small-town prospect from Robinson became a sought-after commodity.
On Tuesday, Leonard ended a brief recruitment with an oral commitment to join Bruce Weber and Illinois in what is shaping into a monster class. Waukegan's Jereme Richmond and Crane's Crandall Head also are committed in the UI's 2010 recruiting class. Richmond (No. 11), Head (No. 12) and Leonard (No. 43) are in selective territory in Scout.com's prospect rankings.
"It wasn't until the Nike Hoop Jamboree (in June) that he really became a household name," Scout.com recruiting analyst Evan Daniels said. "That's when he really took off, on that big stage. People saw his potential and what he could become."
Scout.com's Dave Telep and Daniels spotted Leonard at an AAU event in the spring and helped Leonard earn an invitation to the Nike Hoop Jamboree and the Reebok All-American Camp in June. Leonard estimated he had about 10 scholarship offers after going under the radar in his first two seasons of high school ball.
"It went from Meyers being just another kid playing basketball in Illinois to a guy that's being recruited by just about every program in the country," said Robinson High School coach Bob Coffman, whose school is located about two hours southeast of Champaign-Urbana near the Indiana border.
The attention from college coaches extended through Big Ten country and elsewhere. Leonard said he had plans to attend August camps at Indiana University and the University of Florida, "But I went ahead and canceled those trips" after he committed to Weber at about noon Tuesday.
"When I came to visit (Illinois in June), it was the best campus I've seen out of all the places I've been," said Leonard, who also made visits to Indiana, Purdue and SIU.
Coffman said Leonard, who turned 16 in the spring, averaged about 11 points and seven rebounds as a sophomore at Robinson. The big man's high school and AAU coaches — and recruiting analysts who have followed his progress — are high on his potential, not necessarily his achievements thus far.
"I think he's a guy who's loaded with potential," said Daniels, the recruiting analyst. "You can tell down the road he's going to be really good."
"He's far from peaking," said Ramey, the AAU coach of Rameybasketball.com. "His confidence is at about an 8 or a 9 now. Once he keeps that going and adds some strength, there's no telling how good he could be."
Leonard can sign a national letter of intent in November 2009. His early pledge — Leonard said he initially planned to wait until next summer, at least, before choosing a college program — gives the Illini seven commitments in the 2009 and 2010 recruiting classes. Warren's Brandon Paul, Sterling's Joseph Bertrand, Ballwin (Mo.) Lafayette's Tyler Griffey and Peoria Central's D.J. Richardson are the 2009 recruits.
"He's still kind of growing into his body," Coffman said of Leonard. "He's just gotten better and better, to the point where everybody was coming to watch him."
"I call him Pau Gasol because he's kind of that finesse big guy. He kind of plays like a foreign big guy," Ramey said. "He's going to beat you with a soft touch and right or left hook shots, finesse-type stuff. He's not a big banger that's going to beat you up. Once he adds some strength, that could change."
Quite a haul
The Illini on Tuesday added their seventh recruit in the 2009 and 2010 recruiting classes. A look:
CLASS OF 2009
PLAYER HIGH SCHOOL
Joseph Bertrand Sterling
Tyler Griffey Lafayette (Ballwin, Mo.)
Brandon Paul Warren
D.J. Richardson Peoria Central
CLASS OF 2010
Crandall Head Crane
Meyers Leonard Robinson
Jereme Richmond Waukegan